Friday, August 19, 2016

8 Tips To Improve Your Descriptive Writing

Descriptive writing. It's important. It's how your readers can picture where events are taking place, it's the mode of writing that allows you to convey important pieces of information, and it's how you can show off your epic writing skills.

And, yet, descriptive writing seems to be a concept that eludes most. Many writers feel the need to take two paragraphs to describe a sunset to match their character's mood when they could have simply used one sentence. Nobody likes the writer who cooks up cheesy descriptions or doles out paragraphs of irrelevant details. Don't be that writer. How? Here, let me help you:
1. If it's not relevant to the story, chop it out. Please. If you have any regard for your readers, follow this rule. Do not overuse description. It is here to help you build the world of your story, propel your plot, or foreshadow an event, but it should never be employed as a page filler. Make every description, no matter how small, work to enrich your book. To a great mind, no detail is little.

Chekhov's principle. Use it. Or at least utilize it to pull a MacGuffin.

2. Match the voice of the narrator. Generally, a story is told through the eyes of one of your characters. Make it a point not to have your character notice something out of his/her personality. For instance, say you have three characters in a bedroom. The tired one is probably only going to notice the bed and how comfortably warm the room feels. The paranoid one is going to be happy that the windows give them a good view of the open meadow, making it impossible for intruders to come unnoticed. And the picky one is going to be annoyed with the creaking floorboards and the fact that the dusty armoire isn't even mahogany. This is probably one of the more important parts of descriptive writing. Unless you are using omniscient POV, be very careful about having your characters notice and describe details that are outside of their personality. I recently made the mistake of having one of my rather ferocious male elves describe something as "gauzy periwinkle," which doesn't at all make sense for his character. Be better than me and don't write dumb things like that.

4. Match the mood of the story. This is very similar to tip #2. You never want your description to be at a different pace from the plot. Are you writing battle scene? Then use shorter sentences and fierce words that accurately show the brutality and confusion of the battle field. Is your character having a surreal moment? Then take your time describing the beautiful way the sunlight is beaming through the window, sending shattered rays of light dancing across the ceiling. The last thing you want to do is writing a description that pulls your reader out of the scene.

5. Play to your reader's senses. People, readers in particular, have fairly vivid imaginations, so use this to your advantage. Don't say that the room feels deathly cold. Make your reader shiver by describing how the cold leaks into your very bones and turns your breath into icy clouds. Describe how a doctor's office smells like latex gloves and cleaner. Take note of the whispering sound meadow grasses make, and don't rush past the feel of rain against your skin. Make your reader see, hear, and feel what your character is seeing, hearing, and feeling.

6. Don't be afraid to use symbolism and figures of speech. Just don't overuse them. And don't you dare write "Her hair was of silk" because everybody does that and it wasn't even very good in the first place. But, honestly, figurative writing is one of the most helpful forms of writing when it comes to getting a picture across to your readers. Flowers crushed underneath a carriage wheel can show a character's broken love. A downpour of rain can be personified as vengeful or purifying. Hyperbole can explain to your reader just how enormous and daunting that mountain really is.

7. Be ready to slow down and spend some time being descriptive. Writing a good piece of description takes work, so be willing to put some extra effort into it. Don't just say, "Err...ghosts are transparent." Oh, really? It's very clear to see that all this time spent writing hasn't been a complete waste. "Ghosts are transparent." Dig deeper. Work harder. Make Snape proud.

8. Read comic books. This is a tip you're probably not going to read anywhere else, and I'm honestly not sure why. Comic books handle description better than novels do. Some might say that this is obviously because they get to use pictures as their mode of description. Not true. Comic books go out of their way to make their illustrations match the mood of the story, appeal to the reader, and move the plot along. They pull out all of the stops: symbolism, appealing to the senses, using only relevant images. The good ones do, anyway. I recommend The Dark Knight Returns to see how to use symbolism and setting to compliment a story. Many of Scott Snyder's Batman comic books are good for this, too. What I'm trying to say is this: Read Batman. Batman can fix anything. Why? *dramatic pause* Because he's Batman!! What? You didn't see that coming?

Do you have any tips to add for improving descriptive writing? Leave them below! And don't forget to tell me about an author or novel that stood out to you because of the well done descriptions!

Related articles:
7 Tips for Choosing Your Character's Appearance
7 Tips for Writing Emotions Into Your Story

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38 comments:

  1. This is great! I've found #2 to be particularly helpful when writing stories with dual POV. Maggie Steifvater handles this masterfully in The Scorpio Races. Both protagonists describe things in such a different voice that I never wondered which character was talking. Applying dual POV has been a challenge for me, but different descriptions should stem from each character's personalities.

    And I'd never thought about reading comic books before! I'll keep that tip in mind. I've been wanting to start reading some lately, but I never knew where to start. Thanks for the recommendations and another great post!

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    1. I keep hearing about how brilliant The Scorpio Races is, but have yet to read it. Just bumped it up on my TBR list. =) I love when dual POVs are done well!

      Yeah, comic books are great. I only started reading them about 8 months ago because, like you, I was unsure of where to start so I just...didn't. =) You just kind of have to pick a character you know you like from TV/movies, then jump in to the one that has the best reviews. =D

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    2. The Scorpio Races is an amazing book. And her Raven Cycle series is even better. Outstanding world building.

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  2. This was quite a helpful post! The point about characters' voices was interesting - I've never thought about that before.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Thanks, Ellie! Glad you learned something new! That's always a good feeling. =)

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  4. This isn't necessarily something I struggle with (I tend to do very little descriptions, only what's extremely necessary, usually non-everyday strange stuff that pops up in fantasy and sci-fi and is important that the reader gets it right, or gets it similar to my idea of it), but it might be I'm not as good with it as I think I am. Number #1 is perhaps the most important thing here (and can be extended to pretty much everything in writing: what is needed stays, what is not is out). To me, the most important thing is to avoid adjectives, since they often are boring, and instead use descriptive verbs and turn-arounds to get the point across. Like, don't say "they were dancing beautifully", instead, try to find a way to say it covertly, for example "it was difficult for me to turn away from watching their waltz". This is more specific, more personal, and tells more without being generic. It tells about what style they were dancing, and it tells that the person who was watching would've wanted to watch more, and the point of the dance's beauty also comes across. Or, don't say "she was reading an old, worn book", say "the paperback she had buried her face in had yellowed pages and a bent cover". This tells that the person reading is putting much focus into it, that the book has seen use, that the book is a paperback. This doesn't even have to make the sentences longer: instead of "he was walking aimlessly", try "he was wandering." Though it should be noticed that the simple, adjective using sentences have their place too, both flourishing and straightforward sentences should be used. Balance is the key! Generally, I often use a less straightforward expression for important things, and let it get poetic with emotional or otherwise important scenes (not fights, though: angry, sharp sentences for those). Sadness, longing, love and the likes seem to benefit from the ethereal feeling which more pronounced use of the say-it-covertly trick I described above can give. Of course, all of this can also be blundered, in which case it will sound cheesy. It is trial and error, I guess.

    Sorry for any possible typos and other mistakes, English is not my first language
    The comment above this left prematurely, so I deleted it, finished and reposted. Sorry about that.

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    1. Many great points here! Thank you! I agree that many of the deeper emotions or ethereal settings benefit from being described in a less straightforward manner. Adjectives are also great things to cut out, though never to the point where you feel like you can never use them. That could make the writing feel stilted and long winded.

      Thank you for your insightful comment! And don't worry about your English. I can only speak one language, so I'm in awe of something who can write such a nice reply in a second language. =)

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  5. Last tip FTW! I'm currently reading The Dark Knight Returns and loving the illustration style. Also great mood setting Batman comics are The Killing Joke (always gotta love that one) and Batman Hush. In fact, Hush is probably my favorite. I love the illustrations. And I, of course, agree that Batman can fix anything. You know, because he's Batman. :)

    In all seriousness, these are great tips. I really like number 6, because that's one of my favorite things to read in a book. BUT it can seriously be over done and you've got to watch what comparisons you're making. I have read some weird things in my day.

    P.S. I will forever think of your ferocious male elf softly whispering under his breath "gauzy periwinkle." And then sighing with satisfaction.

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    1. I thought you'd like that tip, Katie. =) I'm so glad you're enjoying The Dark Knight Returns. It's a favorite of mine. The Killing Joke did have some very impressive art and symbolism, especially the last few pages with the beams of light (though I admit the content made me a bit squeamish).

      Great point about #6. All things in moderation. I have also read some very strange comparisons that make me wonder exactly what the author had been smoking. =)

      *sigh* My poor elf. He's scarred for life. =]

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  6. I second Maggie Stievfator as a master of descriptive writing.

    Patrick Rothfuss does a beautiful job as well. His novella about one of his minor characters, "A Slow Regard for Silent Things," is an oddly moving read.

    Hugh Howey's "Wool Omnibus" uses description so well some of the objects in his stories almost become separate characters.

    My absolute favorite author of all time is C.J.Cherryh. If you want to learn how to use description, she is a great place to start.

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    1. Oh, Rothfuss is awesome! And I also thought that Wool was amazing. Great reading suggestions!

      I have never read C.J. Cherryh. I just looked up Cherryh's work and they look like the kind of stories I like. I'll give them a shot.

      Thank you for the helpful comment!

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  7. I love writing and I'm always looking for advice to improve it! :) This was a really helpful post and I'm going to keep in mind your tips! Thank you for your help! I really hope that you can check out my new post as well and maybe let me know your opinion.It would mean a lot to me-thank you!

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    1. Thank you for the sweet comment, Maria! I'm happy to hear that this has helped you. And go you, starting up a blog! Best of luck!

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  8. Hi Hannah. Great read, as it is often the case with your posts.

    In particular I appreciated number 2, especially the way you exemplified your point.

    Instead, number 8 surprised me indeed. Not because of the content, which is absolutely sound. But because, as you said, it is rarely put forward.

    I'd just like to add that to learn about symbolism we can all learn a great deal also examining the paintings from the masters both ancient and modern.

    Have a nice day =)


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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this post, Peter! I love your point about using paintings to learn about symbolism. This would be good for people who aren't fans of reading comics. Thank you for the great comment!

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  9. Heeey... they are actually 7 tips...

    Anyway, THANK YOUUU. I have been looking for this since forever and finally you have a good answer! Thanks and Thanks again.

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    1. Oh my gosh. You're right. *smacks forehead* My brain has forsaken me!

      I'm happy this was the answer you were look for! =D

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  10. Thanks for the tips. I share them with my author community literary karma.

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  11. Thanks for the tips. I share them with my author community literary karma.

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  12. Number 1 is what I needed to know. I tend to a) forget the description when first writing only to b) realise I forgot, go back and end up putting in too much description because once I start to notice things, I notice them all. The first tip can help me curb that and sort out some of the stuff I wrote! Thanks for sharing the wisdom :)

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  13. Thank you, Hanna, for writing this enlightening post and providing me with enough information to hopefully become a much writer. You see, I am starting my writing career late in my middle age, any tips would assist in giving it a lift.

    Thank you
    LeNard - founder seconds2work

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    1. Go you! It's awesome to see other people jumping into writing. If you ever have any questions, feel free to let me know!

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    2. Update: I'm doing it and wanted to say thank you for your encouragement. Oh, I guess I should tell you what I'm doing. I now have about 20 tutorials that I've created since the last time we talked. Also, I've built a few websites, self-taught myself by homeschooling. Now I'm teaching other how to create a website by hand coding them. I would drop my website address so you could look at it if you ever wanted. That would be rude, so I won't. Well anyways, wanted to say thank you because you helped me the most. God bless have a great weekend. ~ LeNard

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  14. I've found this article so helpful and wanted to leave a comment about how grateful I am you wrote it! I'm just a video game nerd who writes fanfiction, but I at least want my story to be well-written (lol). When I implemented your tips my proof-reader said she noticed my improved writing and I've since welcomed some new readers to my story. Thank you again for sharing these tips!

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    1. That is so great, Lena! Go you! I'm glad it was helpful, and kudos to you for writing fanfiction!

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  15. I'm getting caught up on your blog posts... yippee! xD These tips are fantastic. I'm going to share this. *nod nod*

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  17. Hi Hannah, I enjoyed reading your tips. I'm editting my writing at the moment and it's useful to be reminded of the points you highlighted. One question, what happened to number 3?

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    1. Lol! Good question. I accidentally skipped it. By the time I realized my mistake after publishing the post with the title and image saying "8 tips," it was too late to turn back. =D

      Glad you enjoying reading this post!

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  18. Hannah, Your post was helpful and fun to read. I made many notes!

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    1. So happy to hear this, Deborah! Thank you for the comment!

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  19. I really enjoyed your insightful tips. I do NOT care for SOOO MUCH detail that Stephen King uses in his books! I LOVE his stories for the "BIG PICTURE" but reading them just takes way too long to get to the point and I find that my mind wanders. Don't get me wrong, I KNOW he is one of the all time BEST but...I wander.. Love your tips!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Debra! I haven't read much of Stephen King (not a fan, though for different reasons), but I have heard that sometimes the detail is a bit much.

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  20. I so love this post!! It's one of the most authentic posts on writing tips that I've read in a while. Pinning to my writing resources board!

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    1. Thank you, Brooke! I really enjoyed writing this post, so I'm happy you got something out of it.

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